Talk on Intimacy

I want to talk about intimacy. The word crops up in Zen stories; and, like the word "love", has a lot of baggage in English.

Let me start with the baggage. Intimacy is something many of us both long for and fear. As a young person I myself longed, I yearned, for closeness with someone or something, a closeness that in my hopes and dreams included a meeting of the minds, of words and ideas, but also that transcended words. Understanding without words. As I felt that my real self was a secret self that I dared not fully disclose, to anyone, I thought that the intimacy I craved would be a kind of secret sharing — a knowing, in a way that needed no explanation. I carried all of this right into practice, of course. So, I was intrigued when I encountered the use of the term 'intimacy' in Zen, because it is a critical aspect of our practice. Indeed, it is our practice.

Now, the roots of our word intimacy are Latin, intimatus, as in "my intimate friend", and the verb intimare, which means to make known, to announce, to impress. The prefix "-in" is in this case an intensifier. When I first said the word intimacy a moment ago, you might also have been thinking of its use as a kind of polite, oblique or even sweet way of talking about sex. We talk about sexual intimacy because of intimacy's associations or synonyms: closeness, togetherness, affinity, rapport, attachment, familiarity, friendliness, friendship, amity, affection, warmth, confidence. Those are the things I wanted in my life — affinity, closeness, confidence. And I think these are the resonances that we may carry into our reception of the word in Zen.

So, just what is intimacy in Zen? My point of departure for the Zen of intimacy are stories from the koan collections. The first is Case 20 from the Book of Serenity:

Dizang asked Fayan, "Where have you come from?"Fayan said, "I am going around on pilgrimage." "What is the purpose of your pilgrimage?" asked Dizang. "I don't know," said Fayan. "Not knowing is most intimate" said Dizang. Fayan was suddenly awakened.

Hearing this phrase 'not knowing' reminds me of the story of Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor in China. This is in another koan, this time from the Blue Cliff Record, the first one in the collection. Bodhidharma, who brought Zen from India to China, has reached the imperial Chinese court on his travels.

Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, "What is the first principle of the holy teaching?" Bodhidharma said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." The Emperor asked, "Who is this before me?" Bodhidharma said, "I don't know." The Emperor did not understand. Bodhidharma then crossed the Yangtze River and went on to the kingdom of Wei. Later, the Emperor took up this matter with Duke Chi.

Chi said, "Your Majesty, do you know who that was?" The Emperor said, "I don't know." Chi said, "That was the Great Guanyin, conveying the mind-seal of the Buddha."

The Emperor felt regretful, and wanted to send an emissary to invite Bodhidharma to return. Chi said, "Your Majesty, don't say you will send someone to bring him back. Even if everyone in the whole country were to go after him, he would not return."

It would seem from this story, that there is more than one kind of not knowing; Bodhidharma's response to the question, 'who are you?' which feels like there is a place he is speaking from that is not the same as the Emperor's I don't know, when asked about Bodhidharma. Maybe you are familiar with the "I don't know" that feels like something is lacking, a failure, a humiliation. I certainly do, and I didn't think that this feeling could have anything to do with intimacy. But we have these stories which point in another direction. Hearing the emperor's response to his courtier, we might say that the emperor does not know who he, himself is. While he has been a great champion of Buddhism in his country, he hasn't had the essential realization of who he truly is.

Since we practice Suzuki Roshi's way, we may also call up Suzuki Roshi's Beginner's Mind: the not knowing which is recommended for Zen practitioners. I found this a compelling but difficult idea when I first came across it, since I was directing my life to NOT being a beginner, to being an expert, and in school as you know, when you are called on, not knowing is NOT GOOD. It's that kind of not knowing that can feel like a deficiency. Another story that became important to me, one quoted in a talk on Beginner's Mind that Zenkei Blanche Hartman gave in 2001. She says:

The forty-second ancestor Ryozan Enkan was the attendant to the forty-first, Doan Kanshi, and as such he carried his robe for him. There was a moment in which his teacher needed to put on his robe, so Ryozan handed the robe to Doan. And Doan said to his disciple: "What is the business under the patched robe?" [you know, what is this form, why put on this form? What are you, actually?] His student, Ryozan, had no answer. The teacher said, "To wear this robe and not understand the great matter is the greatest suffering. You ask me." So the student asked the teacher, "What is the business under the patched robe?" The teacher said, "Intimacy. Intimacy." This was the moment when the forty-second ancestor broke through. He bowed to his teacher in great gratitude, and tears were flowing. The teacher asked, "What have you understood? Can you express it?" He said, "What is the matter under this robe? Intimacy." His teacher said, "Intimacy and even greater intimacy."

I think we can take three points from these stories. First, intimacy in Zen is something that is closely tied to not knowing, to having no answer. Second, this not knowing provides an opportunity for awakening. And thirdly, this awakening opportunity depends on encounter. It comes up in meeting another person — but, it is not about finding an answer in that 'other' person.

Now these ancient stories are about our Chinese ancestors, as transmitted through our Japanese ancestors and teachers. What did our Japanese ancestors have to say, what was their expression?The Japanese word for intimacy is mitsu. It has the meaning of secret, hidden, and undisclosed, and also intimacy. Josho Roshi spoke about this in a talk on mindfulness, where she mentioned the compound word menmitsu. The addition of the character "men" to mitsu, is interesting, because that is also the word for cotton cloth. The close weave of cotton has the quality of mitsu. Josho said, "that has the meaning of attention to detail, continuous intimacy, soft and subtleness, and warm-hearted, thorough diligence." As she noted, this is a word Suzuki Roshi defined as to be very careful in doing things; very considerate. Josho also quoted Jakusho Kwong who talked about Tatsugami Roshi, who came to Tassajara to help Suzuki Roshi. Tatsugami Roshi said the same thing about menmitsu that Suzuki Roshi did: the word means very careful, considerate, aware. Tatsugami Roshi also used a phrase from Dogen: menmitsu no kafu, the careful consideration of everything, intimacy with everything, that is, literally, "the family style".

What about this family? Are we being asked, then, to take on a foreign, Japanese, formal way of doing things that is not natural to Westerners?Is the family one that isn't really ours? This is the trap many of us encounter in the forms and the rules of Soto Zen practice. A sense that we are being controlled, and in doing things in a Japanese way, we are being inauthentic, or — in our time —that we are appropriating another culture.

The philosopher and scholar of religion Thomas Kasulis speaks about intimacy, menmitsu, as critical to understanding Japanese society as a whole. Kasulis suggests that this intimacy is something embodied, and expressed between people as embodied persons. He writes, "We meet not minds but people — flesh-and-blood, thinking and feeling human beings. We meet an incarnate person, even if that person is only perceivable as a voice on the phone or as a style of writing." And his point is this, "If we want to learn about Zen Buddhism or even Japanese management, we must realize that the knowledge they exemplify does not come through the application of dogmas or principles. They derive rather from the unself-conscious assimilation of a way of living and acting."

So this family style is very Japanese, culturally. But the larger point isn't that we have to be Japanese, or act Japanese, to practice. Practice is not Japanese, or Indian, or Chinese — it is the true human body.

Jiryu Mark Rutschman Byler, a teacher in our lineage, said: "menmitsu, as an enactment of the immutable truth of the total connectedness of all things…isn't about an inner state. It's about taking care of things. It's not about me; it's about the fork, the dish, the person I'm looking at." This is how menmitsu is not just mindfulness. Instead, it expresses the way things really are. This is what is encapsulated in the expression, menmitsu no kafu, "very considerate is the family way" — that is, the family way of practice. This is Dogen's expression, and it is the same intimacy as we chant in the Sandokai, or Merging of Difference and Unity: the first line is, "The mind of the great sage of India is intimately communicated from East to West." Seamlessly, from India to China to Japan to us.

Another word translated as intimacy in Japanese is shingetsu. Linda Ruth Cutts, former abbot of SFZC, said this after dharma transmission from her teacher: "…the word 'intimate' in Japanese, shingetsu, also means 'realization,' so intimacy and realization are used in Zen literature interchangeably. Intimacy also means, 'apposite,' or 'strikingly appropriate.' Strikingly appropriate is a way to describe this intimacy, which is realization. The inheritance and transmission of dharma through these twining vines includes an intimacy which is strikingly appropriate. This is the kind of intimacy that meets completely." Actually, shingetsu means "moon mind", the mind that is so intimate with everything that it reflects whatever it encounters. The luminous, moon-like mind is intimate and realization occurs in encountering and reflecting without adding anything.

Kwong Roshi says, "You don't have to look outside yourself. Nothing is missing right here within you, but you don't know it, so you are constantly looking outside…This is an understanding essential to Zen, and it is also at the very root of menmitsu no kafu and all the ways in which we express it, including placing your shoes together outside the zendo, folding your clothes in your room, working with utensils in the kitchen or tools in the garden, practicing zazen, and living your daily life with people in the world. These are some of the various ways of practicing zazen…not just a matter of being careful and polite." So continuous zazen, meticulous attention and inclusion, are realization itself.

Kwong Roshi concludes, "Whether you throw something or lay it down, when you do it with the spirit that recognizes its liveliness, the inherent quality of virtue of the object, animate or inani-mate, you simultaneously recognize this within yourself. Everything is complete in your form…This is the basic Dharma, the basic teaching. Don't forget."

I think this is wonderful. It is waking up together with all things. Intimacy with yourself is enlightenment, it is revealing Big Self, Big Mind. Everything is this Mind. You can only realize this with everyone and everything in the intimacy like cotton cloth that is one dense thing but made of a tight weave of many individual things. No cloth apart from the threads, no threads apart from the cloth. Now, this intimacy is not always warm and fuzzy. That was a great liberation for me to see. I think we all have some experience of this in our lives, when we get into conflict, we become angry, we are the object of anger. It is still intimate. We ask and receive, call and respond, co-arise, with everyone and everything.

So, fundamentally, intimacy is of me with me. It is of you with you, and — there is no one other than you. There is nothing other than me, but it's not this small me. That's what I didn't understand most of my life, and I still forget. Tenshin Reb Anderson says, "this intimacy is pure and radiant, and it can be transformed into limitless forms. If you observe a sentient being, and you see how he appears the way he does because of the beings who support him, then you see the nirmanakaya in that sentient being". The nirmanakaya is the body of Buddha. It is seamless reality. Tenshin Roshi says, "We live in a mind that is generated in such a way that it appears to be knowing something other than itself. We are also given the gift of a mind that knows itself, a mind that is perceiving itself. If we can understand this, we understand suchness [or reality, nonduality]. We understand the way we really are." This is the business under the patched robe, our individual form expressing the universal form.

Call and response, arising simultaneously. They meet in stillness, and all things are liberated. And as Aitken Roshi says, this is the open secret of Zen.

© Copyright 2019 Choro Carla Antonaccio